Sunday, May 19, 2013

Life with chronic headache

In two days I am going to reach a important milestone. My headache is going to turn 4 weeks old! Imagine that. It is a very weak headache. If you want to feel how I feel, grab a shirt, make it a ball and put it above your head. Now imagine it is above your head all the time. E.g: When you wake up. Now imagine the shirt is invisible, so you shouldn't be feeling the shirt. Now imagine that the shirt becomes heavier during the second half of the day. It is mild, so mild that for days I was not sure it was a headache, maybe it was a numbness? But when I describe it to people they say it is what they often feel and call a headache. Doctors don't seem worried, it is either tension in my neck or a transformed migraine. But it is difficult not to focus on the fact that it is about to reach its fifth week!

The most likely explanation is that the stress I was going through one month ago somehow triggered this. It could be the cause of the tension in the neck. Or it could have been the thing that transformed my migraine.

Surprisingly productive

Because it is such a weak headache and because distracting myself with things, the first weeks were surprisingly productive. The more I worked or exercised the less I would get to feel/remember the stupid ache.

This may be the reason I was actually able to score a SRM problem set. I know that the problems really sucked this time. But keep in mind that I have been going through a long dry streak before this, not being able to think of problems.

Attempts to get rid of it

So if it is tension, you try to relax. It sounds so easy, really. Although quite honestly, I don't feel as stressed as one month ago. I really think I am calmer now. But maybe I am not. In attempts to relax, I tried massage with a stupid automatic chair called ceragem. I was wary of this because of all the new age rubish it promised. Then I tried it and it was awful. Do you remember "Modern Times"? I refer to the scene in which the poor guy falls into the factory's gears. It feels like that, but also with heat. The good thing about this torture is that at least it distracted from the headache. But no thank you. Not worth it. Not worth it at all.

The sleep thingy

A study with more than 40 women that had chronic headaches, split the group of people in two. They gave instructions about sleep habits to half of them. And placebo instructions (Fake instructions that sound like health advice but are not supposed to do anything) to the other half. Apparently a good quantity of women from the first half eventually reverted back to episodic headaches (Which is the best I can hope to get, not to cure my headache but to return to the good ole days in which headaches happened only once every two weeks). I figure that the 5 sleep habit instructions probably can't hurt (plus they are things that are usually agreed to be healthy things to do), but if they worked it would be wonderful:

  • Keep a strict sleep schedule. Always 8 hours. Always going to bed at the same time (allowing a 30 minutes variation). Always wake up at the same time.
  • No watching TV, no reading, no music while you are in bed.
  • Using a visualization technique after getting to bed so that you start to sleep without distractions
  • Avoid eating 4 hours before bed time. Drinking 2 hours before bed time.
  • No naps. Not even if you are sleepy. Not even if it is fun. Not even with permission from your mum.

Oh boy, so I thought to myself. "Ok, I have basically no strings attached to me that would stop me from keeping a sleep schedule. So this is doable". Years ago I bought the idea that you only need 6 hours of sleep, or perhaps only four and that it was wise to only go to sleep when you are feeling sleepy. So I stayed in front of the computer up until 2:00 AM most nights. Slept around 5 hours a night in average, and maybe took short naps at the afternoon. I thought this was a clever way to do things, and definitely, with time I ended up not needing a lot of sleep a day... ... But now, if losing this sleep superpower was the price to pay for not having a constant headache, it seemed worth it...

Keeping a consistent sleep schedule...

It turns out that this was incredibly difficult. First of all, since my bed time and my awake time have to be roughly the same every day (EVERY day), I had to be careful picking the times. I picked 11:00 PM - 7:00 AM. Because I need to wake up at 7:00 AM to take my blood pressure medicine. This instantly kills my aspirations to participate in morning SRMs :(. But there is no other way, I guess.

However, my body is not very used to the idea of sleeping 8 hours. And throughout these 2 weeks I have been trying this sleep schedule, I have constantly waken up in the middle of the night. Feeling without any need to keep sleeping. But I have to go back to sleep or else the change in sleep habit is not going to have a real effect. I think there is a link between the headache and sleep, because on the days after the nights in which I sleep less time, my headaches are a bit worse.

No doing anything in bed

This is incredibly difficult to me. And honestly, it is almost a 1st world advice. I think people who own a real house can probably afford having all their stuff outside their bedroom. In my case, we have four people living in the same apartment. My bedroom is the only place besides my computer desk where I can work at. I don't have space anywhere to store my LEGO sets and tons (and tons) of bricks inside tupper ware (Really, I have tons of LEGO bricks, tons). So my bedroom was the only place where I could work on LEGO stuff. So far I am quiting my LEGO hobby at least for a while, because I can't do anything on bed. Also, my consoles and my TV are at my bedroom. There is no space elsewhere. So lately I only have my computer and my bedroom is deserted, not sure what to do with this. (No, seriously, I have so many bricks, all classified and sorted by shape and color, that I have almost no space in my bedroom).

Visualization technique?

Nah it sounds silly, plus I can start to sleep without much issue. It is the waking up in the middle of the night that is tormenting me.

No naps

The point of not having naps during the day is that it will allow you to go to sleep easily at the scheduled time. It works in theory. But some days it gets difficult because you didn't sleep too well last night. Although lately my body has been getting used to this.

No eating/drinking too late

This is another thing that is not very viable. So I go to sleep at 11:00PM. It means that in order to eat four hours before bed, I would have to finish eating at 7:00. It is impossible for there to be food at home before 8:30 PM. Sometimes we eat at 10:00 PM. This is something I can't help.

The study said that all the women who followed all FIVE new habits reverted their chronic headaches to episodic ones. But missing one of the habits reduced the probability of success. Since I can't do many of these habits and one of them is rubish, then all my success rate depends on putting all my strength and will power in the sleep schedule, not doing anything other than sleeping in bed and not having naps. These changes have been the most difficult change ever. And I say this after the month in which I successfully switched to eating only 50% of what I used to eat and doing regular exercise. It is incredibly difficult to wake up at 6:00 AM and not just go the computer. It is also difficult to wake up at 7:00 AM, and not stay in bed 5 more minutes. Actually, I miss staying in bed without doing anything. Now whenever I am in bed it is me trying to sleep.

Oddly productive

But there is something surprising about the new sleep habits. What is true is that I now have far less time to use my computer than before. I spend more time in bed trying to sleep. And I think that I am sleeping more time than I became used to sleep these last 7 years. But the strange thing is that I feel more productive. I think that before I had more time, but I used to spend plenty of that time in doing nothing. Instead , this month I would do strange things like write an editorial, write a compiler (From working C-like syntax to GNU assembly code) and continuously improve solutions for a TopCoder Marathon. All at once during the same week. I don't remember the last time I was this productive. But I suspect it was since before I started to sleep only at 2:00 AM. Although this could all be the placebo effect.

Leaving coffee

Something funny happened last month when I was trying to stop having stress. I decided to quit coffee. A week after I quit coffee, I noticed I was feeling worse, so I starting drinking it again. It is likely a coincidence, but 1 day or maybe 2 days after I started to drink coffee again, the headache started. So I stopped the caffeine once again a week ago. This last week has been miserable, because lack of caffeine apparently has a withdrawal effect. This is a very hard change, because I used to drink two cups of coffee a day, one during breakfast and one at the afternoon (A meal that around here is called "Tea time".) No offense to milk drinkers. But milk is really not as delicious as coffee. In fact, I't rather drink plain water, and that is what I have been doing during the afternoon "Tea time". Water. Just water. During the breakfasts, I just fill my cup of milk with a ton of corn flakes. They distract me from the awful flavor of milk.

It is going to be a long battle

If tomorrow, when I wake up, it turns out I do not feel anything funny in my head. It will be the happiest day of my life. However, I think I stopped having such a hope after the 9-th or the 10-th day of really thinking that maybe the next day was going to be the day. Eventually, the headache will end, but it is likely going to take a while. It could end after a whole year or it could end tomorrow. I have no idea.

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